Latin American poverty: the enemy on the loose

IN a major speech on Central America May 9 the President was right to call for the urgent passage of the aid package recommended by the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America. But the President devoted most of his speech to the threat of communist subversion in the region.

There is another enemy loose in Central America, more real and more menacing. For a few years during the '70s, it was on the run, but it is now more vicious than ever. To finally conquer it, we need to recognize it and the conditions that foster it.

The enemy is, of course, the awful endemic poverty of the Central American republics which drives the people to look for relief in any political direction that is even remotely hopeful. Despair is increased by the frustration of hopes fostered by a brief period of economic growth that withered at the end of the ' 70s under the impact of worldwide recession, energy shock, population explosions , and the drain of capital by United States budget deficits.

Congress has not yet absorbed the findings of fact in the report of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America; they merit a reading. After hearing the evidence of more than 500 witnesses, the commission unanimously concluded:

* The roots of the crisis in Central America are both indigenous and foreign. Poverty, repression, and inequity have combined with the world economic recession and the intervention of external forces to produce the present dilemma. Ultimate resolutions depend on economic progress and social and political reform.

* There must be a substantial and urgent increase in outside assistance. External financing needs between now and 1990 in Central America were estimated to be as high as $24 billion for the seven countries.

* Overpopulation presents a serious threat to the development and health of the region. Attempts must be made through education and family planning to reduce the birthrate, now among the highest in the world.

* As many as 52 percent of the people in Central America may be malnourished.

Perhaps the most significant finding of the bipartisan commission is that the crisis in Central America is our crisis; it is urgent, and it will require a sustained commitment of US resources. The commission recommended a multi-year program of economic assistance and an adequate increase in military assistance to El Salvador and Honduras, as well as the formation of an innovative multilateral organization - the Central American Development Organization - to help allocate US economic assistance. The commission also recommended a number of creative education, housing, and health programs that would involve the public and private sectors in the US and in Central America in the development effort.

To appreciate the full significance of the commission's report, it is important to understand that its 12 members were drawn from both political parties and held widely disparate views. Yet they reached a degree of consensus which surprised many of the members themselves. As one who served as a congressional observer of the commission, and participated in more than one session where sparks flew, I was impressed by the fact that a consensus emerged because, in most cases, there were no alternatives.

The administration accepted the majority of the commission's recommendations and proposed legislation to carry them out. Unfortunately, the President obscured his own constructive program with controversial decisions to mine the harbors of Nicaragua, to use a bill providing emergency relief to drought victims in Africa to obtain military assistance for El Salvador, and to withdraw the US from World Court jurisdiction on Central American issues. Congress reacted by focusing on the issues of the day that he had created. Interest was diverted from the core plan.

Recently I proposed legislation intended to get the debate back on the right track. It would create a partership between the administration and Congress for the duration of a five-year program to improve social and economic conditions. A joint resolution passed by Congress and signed by the President would be necessary before any economic assistance could be sent to a Central American country. This resolution would, in effect, certify a country's ''demonstrated progress toward and commitment to'' carrying out a number of policy reforms. It would enable the administration and Congress to say to the governments in the region that basic human rights must be respected, the political process must be open to all members of society, and serious economic and social reform must be undertaken.

It will be difficult in this election year to undertake the financial commitment a successful policy requires. Foreign aid is never popular. But as the commission noted, ''whatever the short-term costs of acting now, they are far less than the long-term costs of not acting now.''

The President has the right to criticize Congress for dragging its heels on the five-year aid proposal he presented to the Congress. But the problem is that the broader aspects of US policy have been pushed into the background by controversial administration decisions. A national consensus on a comprehensive US policy for Central America must start with the President and the Congress. Scolding does not help; coordination will!

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